Purporting to be the first-person narrative of a former SS officer writing many years after World War II, Jonathan Littell's Les bienveillantes, published in France in 2006, became the biggest best seller of the year and won the most prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. The author, an American, wrote the book in French. Many critics praised the novel, comparing it to War and Peace and other masterpieces, while others were quite hostile. In this essay I argue that Les bienveillantes accomplishes a rare, indeed a totally original, feat: representing a Nazi perpetrator as a reliable historical—and even moral—witness of the Holocaust. Whether one admires Les bienveillantes or loathes it depends largely on how one responds to this improbable combination of perpetrator and reliable witness. One problematic aspect of the novel is its use of the Oresteia theme: by making his protagonist a matricide, does Littell weaken his effectiveness as a historical witness?

The text of this article is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.